Shadow Dagger Ch. 18byaustin_erotica©
Note: In this chapter, I finally reveal the secret behind the Shadow Dagger. I have been building up to this moment the whole series. I would really like to hear your opinions about the reveal. Have fun reading the chapter!
Ashford leaned against the crumbling clay wall and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
These damn Raves warriors don't know how to give up, do they?
Just as he thought it, a man came running around the corner of the building, brandishing his sword and roaring in defiance. Ashford sighed and pushed himself off the wall. He forced the weariness from his mind and brought his sword up in time to deflect the man's sword from his head.
He felt his magic surge inside of him as he quickly sidestepped the stunned warrior. He plunged his sword into the man's chest and pulled it back out before the man even knew what happened.
"Sorry," Ashford apologized, as the man fell to the ground, dead.
The sound of boots crunching on stone brought Ashford's head up. He nearly sighed in relief as he recognized Jon.
"You're still alive?" Jon chided him.
Ashford sheathed his sword and stretched out his back. "Unfortunately," he moaned, as he felt the muscles tighten painfully in his back.
Jon smiled. "I have good news to cheer you up. We finally cornered him. Come, let's go put an end to this."
"Oh, thank the God," Ashford breathed. "That bastard managed to hold out for...what, seven days?" God, has it only been seven days?
Jon motioned Ashford to walk beside him before speaking. "We knew this would happen," he reminded him.
"I know," Ashford admitted.
Jon raised his eyebrows as he examined the area around him. "Did you kill all of these men?"
Ashford shrugged. "I can never tell how many men I've killed during the heat of battle."
Jon looked at him shrewdly. "Are you still apologizing to them?"
"Yes," Ashford said, wincing at the memories flooding his mind. "It isn't fair, how I fight them. They didn't know what they're going up against."
Jon stopped and put his hand on Ashford's shoulder. "You fight them fairly, my friend. You only use your magic to enhance your speed. They at least have a chance."
"Still," Ashford said, shrugging uncomfortably as they continued walking. "I don't like it. It feels like I'm cheating."
"At least it keeps you alive," Jon offered.
Ashford said nothing. They didn't speak again as they made their way through the crumbling ruins of the desert city that was home to the Tribe of the Desert Coyote. Ashford wished he would've had the chance to visit this city again before the battle broke out.
Shade, as the Coyote tribe named their city, was nestled in the crevice between two towering cliffs. The small mountain in the middle of the desert stretched out for miles in either direction, separating the desert into a lower and upper half.
The only way to survive the harshness of the desert, where there was enough water and food, was to pass between the two halves of the wall of stone and boulders to reach the upper half.
The Coyote's Chieftain, a man named Ikan, had heard what happened to Sazon, former Chieftain of the Tribe of the Desert Scorpion. He knew he didn't stand a chance in single combat against the man who had defeated Sazon. So instead of meeting Jon in single combat, he forced Jon's tribe to come and get him.
For seven bloody days the Tribe of the Desert Scorpion lay siege to the well-defended city of Shade. The city landscape gradually inclined upwards, effectively dividing the city into layers, like steps on a ladder.
Ikan's men were very clever; they hid in homes and on rooftops, never daring to attack in full force. Jon had been forced to hunt through the city for Ikan. He was constantly delayed as they had to battle their way onto the next higher layer.
It appears Jon had finally found him.
The men of Jon's new tribe fell in behind them as Ashford and Jon made their way through tight streets clogged with rubble. The structures were made of clay and were easily destroyed in close quarter combat. These people would have to spend many years to rebuild what they had lost.
They turned a corner and arrived at a great square in the middle of the highest layer of the city. The cliffs almost leveled off overhead and provided this area with the least amount shade in the city. Small plants and stunted trees, which grew in abundance in the lower parts of the city, grew only in tight bunches in the parts of the square that were slightly protected from the unrelenting desert sun.
One large building dominated the block. It was made of stone and housed the current Chieftain of the Desert Coyote. It was nothing compared to the majestic buildings in Astuari but, here in the desert, it was luxury. At least, it used to be. Ashford felt his heart sink as he took in the destruction of the scene before his eyes.
The home of the Chieftain was crumbling. Men hung out of windows, their bows held loosely in their hands, and their blood slowly dripping down the walls. Bodies lay everywhere around the square, both of the Scorpion and Coyote. Clearly, this place had been heavily defended.
Chieftain Ikan stood upright in the middle of all the destruction. Blood ran down the side of his face, but he stood, unwavering. His long black hair was braided tightly behind his head and hung down to his belt. Other than the wound on his head, there were no visible scars on his body. The warriors of Raves were measured by the ability to avoid cuts.
Jon stopped several paces away. "Chieftain Ikan," he greeted him, as though they were old friends.
Ikan sneered. "Took you long enough to reach me, Chieftain Jon," he said scornfully.
"Your men fought bravely," Jon said, ignoring the hostility in Ikan's voice. "Though, I must say, was it really necessary to throw away so many lives?"
"To kill you? Yes," Ikan growled. "You're a corruption that was sent here to wipe out all of Raves and to erase the proud history of our people. I will not bow to you, Astuarian dog!"
Ashford couldn't help but be impressed; the man showed absolutely no fear. No matter how many years Ashford spent in Raves, he was still amazed by their ferociousness.
"I'm here to unite your people," Jon said quietly.
Ikan spat, missing Jon by a few feet. "I would rather see my people burn in the nine hells than to see them grovel at the feet of an Astuarian!"
The men around Ashford muttered uncomfortably amongst themselves. They clearly hadn't warmed up entirely to the idea of Jon leading them. Ashford forced himself not to look behind him. Surely, a knife wasn't about to find it's way into his back.
"Chieftain Ikan of the Tribe of the Desert Coyote, I, Jon d'Thelas san Ronar, Chieftain of the Tribe of the Desert Scorpion, challenge you to the right of leadership of the Tribe of the Desert Coyote."
"To the nine hells with your challenge!" Ikan roared, sprinting toward Jon.
Ashford backpedaled quickly, surprised by Ikan's mad rush. The man didn't even have a weapon on him! The warriors around him roared in anticipation of the battle to come.
If Jon was surprised by Ikan's sudden rush, he didn't show it. Instead, when Ikan's fist was about to smash into his nose, he stepped calmly to the side, grabbed Ikan's arm, turned his hip, and flipped him over.
Ikan somersaulted over Jon's back and was smashed hard into the ground. He let out a grunt of pain and rolled quickly to his feet. Jon let him up and began to slowly circle him. He left his sword sheathed on his hip.
Ikan eyed him uncertainly as he circled. Ashford could tell he hadn't been expecting Jon to react so quickly. A heavy silence descended over the men watching. Even Ashford caught himself holding his breath in anticipation. Was Jon really going to fight him without his sword?
Ikan roared and charged Jon by ducking his head and attempting to launch his shoulder into Jon's stomach. But Jon's legs quickly flew out behind him so that Jon's stomach ended up on top of Ikan's back. Ikan, having anticipated ramming into Jon, suddenly stumbled.
Jon, his weight fully on top of Ikan, flattened him to the ground. He swiveled around on Ikan's back and sat up. He leaned down and hooked his arm around Ikan's throat.
Ikan's eyes bulged as Jon's iron grip starting choking the air out of him. With a strength that must have come from desperation, Ikan somehow lurched to his knees with Jon still on his back and flipped over, ramming Jon's back into the hard stones.
Jon, however, merely grunted, his hold around Ikan's throat still secure. Ikan flailed wildly, desperately trying to escape Jon's choke hold. Ashford could see the strain in Jon's face as he slowly choked the life out of Ikan.
Ikan's face was turning a dark red as he struggled to roll over. Jon brought his legs up and locked them around Ikan's waist, holding him in place. Ikan tried smashing his head backwards but Jon's chin was raised high enough that Ikan only managed to hit his chest with only a minimal amount of force.
Ikan's flailing attempts to escape slowly abated. His face was nearly purple and spit dribbled from his clenched teeth as the last, rattling breath left his body. Jon held the chokehold for several more moments before shoving Ikan's body aside.
Ashford rushed to him and held out his hand to help him up. "That was amazing," Ashford breathed.
The crowd around them was oddly silent. Ashford looked up and saw not only Scorpion tribesman but Coyote tribesman as well. The Coyote's yellow vests nearly blended in with the buildings around them.
Jon wiped the dust from his clothes as he looked around the crowd. "Does any here challenge my right to lead the men of the Tribe of the Desert Coyote?"
The Scorpion tribesman stepped aside as more Coyote tribesman filtered into the crowd. The men who had been fighting to the death moments ago were standing side by side. Nobody said a word.
Jon nodded. "Then let's go. We have a long way to go yet. Dasan!" he barked suddenly.
A tall, dark warrior in a blue sleeveless vest pushed his way through the crowd and stopped in front of Jon. Ashford eyed him uneasily. Dasan had small, crisscrossing scars on his bare arms. Normally, Raves warriors took great pride in remaining unscarred as they thought it was a measure of prowess on the battlefield.
Dasan, on the other hand, had purposefully scarred his arms. Each scar represented a warrior he killed. For the life of him, Ashford couldn't understand why Jon made him his second-in-command.
"Yes, Chieftain?" Dasan asked.
"Gather all the Coyote warriors and assign ranks. Give me an accurate count of their numbers once you're done. Also, have word spread to our camp that we'll be staying here in this city for the night. We march at first light tomorrow."
"It will be done," Dasan said. He turned and quickly began to bark orders to the men around him.
"That was an impressive fight," Ashford said quietly to Jon. "Where did you learn to fight like that?"
Jon stared down at Ikan's corpse for several moments before speaking. "A true warrior knows how to fight with any weapon, including his body."
Ashford nodded, unsurprised. "I've never seen a man choked to death like that before."
"The man was as strong as a bull," Jon said, his eyes still staring down at the corpse. "I almost had to use my magic."
"If you kept your eyes closed, nobody would've known," Ashford offered, shrugging.
Jon looked at him sharply. "I would've known," he said sharply. His eyes scanned Ashford's face and showed a hint of disappointment.
Ashford turned from that gaze, not wanting Jon to see the shame in his eyes. "I'm sorry."
Jon sighed and clapped Ashford on the shoulder. "I will make a warrior out of you yet. You fight very well."
Ashford looked up and saw the slight smile on Jon's face and the twinkle in his eye. Ashford grinned sheepishly. "Thanks."
"But for now, tell me about the Spider tribe. How far is their city?"
"It's a good week's march. Luckily, the city is not nearly as well defended as Shade. It's located out in the open because of the proximity of a nearby bed of underground water. In fact, I think..."
Ashford and Jon made their way into the crumbling house that once was home to Ikan and talked well into the night.
Sophina did her best to calm her nerves as she looked around the column of the building. She shrunk back immediately as she spotted a squad of soldiers checking a nearby alley.
"We should kill them," Peron hissed from next to her. He, too, was peering around the corner.
"What, and draw the attention of the army over here?" Sophina hissed back. The soldiers, evidently finding nothing, marched briskly to the next alley and disappeared.
"We can't mount a resistance if we hide like scared jack-rabbits," Peron whispered back. "It's been a week already."
"Patience," Sophina reminded him irritably. "Evelyn still has over two months to go before giving birth. Even then we still don't have to rescue her. We can wait until the intensity of these searches die down."
"Do you really think so?" Peron asked, surprised. "Look at the situation closely. Reynar has recalled almost all of his soldiers from across the country. He even seems to be withdrawing them from the hunt for Magi Victus. Why?"
Sophina frowned. Peron did have a point. Why would Reynar beggar the country's defense to guard the city for the God knew how long?
"It's almost as if he's anticipating something," Sophina said slowly, looking over at Peron.
Peron nodded. "Think about it; we don't necessarily have to rescue Evelyn before she gives birth. As long as we eventually get her away and dispose of Reynar, then that's ok."
Sophina shook her head. How could she have been so blind? I finally explain the entire situation to Peron and he already sees something I've missed! I can see why he is so feared by his enemies.
Peron was a mystery to her. When she told him about True-born Magi and what Evelyn is carrying, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said Astuarians were capable of anything. The truth about the history of the Magi didn't even shock him!
"It's almost as though Reynar is just waiting for Evelyn to give birth," Sophia whispered. "Why? What's his end game? Doesn't he want to keep Evelyn and the child?"
Peron shook his head. "I don't know. Reynar is a great man and whatever he has planned, we probably won't know what it is until it happens."
Another squad of soldiers emerged from a nearby alley. Sophina stepped back into the shadows of the ruined building that Jon called home. "Let's get back inside. They're coming this way."
She quickly opened the secret entrance and descended down the stairs. She heard the entrance shut and the sound of Peron's footsteps behind her.
A fire was cracking merrily in the living room. Sophina hesitated for a moment before realizing that Marcus was not in the room. She let out a relieved breath.
"What are we going to do about him?" Peron asked quietly as he perched on the edge of a chair near the fire. He, too, seemed relieved that Marcus wasn't here.
"Not much we can do," Sophina admitted. "I bring him his medicine as often as I can. He seems ok now."
Peron looked over at her and for once his face was serious. "That man is like the desert spider. It lies perfectly still, blending with its surroundings. If you walk too close to it, it springs forward and bites you. You're dead inside of a minute. I don't know about you, but I don't want to walk too close to Marcus.
"Jon trusts him and we have to have faith in that," Sophina said. Her voice sounded uncertain even to her own ears.
Peron snorted. "Jon Laurent," he said slowly, as though testing a name he had never heard before. "I would like to meet the man who managed to capture your heart."
Sophina was glad that Peron's back was to her or he would've seen the blush creep up her face. "It's not like that," she said, and immediately regretted it.
She could almost hear the smirk in Peron's voice when he spoke. "Yeah, right. Still, I would like to meet him one day. When will he get back?"
Sophina walked over to the fire and stared into it's depths. "I don't know. I'm hoping it's soon."
"Any news about our Magi friends?" Peron asked. Sophina had snuck into the city to gather news earlier in the day.
"Raynolt is still unconscious. The Magi who were loyal to him are camped out in their hiding place. The battle at the Emporium was devastating, apparently. Over a hundred soldiers were killed as well as twenty Magi."
"How many Magi do we have on our side now?"
Sophina sighed and turned away from the fire. "Sanje counts seventy five. Reynar has over three hundred still loyal to him. We're in deep, now."
"And my men are still stuck outside these damn city walls," Peron said, punching his thigh. "I don't know how we're going to pull this off."
Sophina said nothing. What could she say? She harbored a deep fear that Peron was right. They really needed Jon back and soon.
Peron sighed and stood up. "Ok, it's time to go give Marcus his next dose."
"I'll do it," she said.
Peron hesitated. "You sure?"
Yes, Sophina, why do you always volunteer to go see him? Can it have anything to do with the fact that he looks almost just like Jon?
Shaking her head, she grabbed the pot of water hanging over the fireplace and quickly dumped the drug into it. She watched it dissolve before she carefully poured it into a cup.
"Wish me luck," she said.
Peron looked as though he would stop her but instead just shook his head. "Good luck. I will keep watch outside the door, just in case."
Sophina felt her heart racing as she walked down the stone hallway. It happened every time she came to see him. She stopped at the door, took a deep breath, and knocked.
Marcus was sitting in a chair next to the bed and was staring blankly into space. At the sound of her voice, his eyes focused on her with such sudden intensity that Sophina nearly bolted from the room.
"That time already?" he asked.
Sophina let out a shaky breath. He was coherent today. "Yes, I'm afraid so. How are you?"
Marcus stared down at his hands. He looked horrible. He hadn't shaved since a week ago when he nearly killed her. Coarse brown hair covered his jaw and lessened his resemblance to Jon.
"Here," Sophina said gently, holding out the cup to him.
"Thanks," Marcus mumbled. He held the cup in his hands and didn't drink.
Sophina looked around hesitantly and decided to sit on the edge of the bed next to Marcus. "I hope you don't blame yourself for what happened."
Marcus looked up, his gaze as sharp as the edge of a knife. "Who's fault is it then?" he asked bitterly.
Sophina didn't know what to say. She was never very good at talking with people. "I made you use too much magic," she finally said.
Marcus looked back down at the cup in his hands. "That's just an excuse, Sophina. I have nobody to blame but myself. I know how dangerous I am but I still decided to accompany you."
"You promised Jon you would."
"And Jon knows what's best for me?" he snapped, raising his head angrily. "What can he possibly know what it's like to be me? I've tried to warn him so many times. He just won't listen. He has too much faith in me."
"So what would you have him do?" Sophina said, her own temper starting to boil.
"I would have him leave me alone!" Marcus roared. For a moment, something golden flashed in his eyes. "I was comfortable being the prophetic beggar! I wasn't a danger to anybody!"
He looked down at his cup, his chest rising and falling rapidly. Sophia stared at him, filled with a combination of pity and regret. "So that's why you chose to live as a beggar," she said quietly.
Marcus didn't look up. All the fight seemed to drain out of him. His shoulders sagged in defeat. "I wasn't a danger to anybody," he repeated, as though he was trying to convince himself.